Where Plastic Flows: Visualizing Environmental Data

A screenshot of Adrift in action. The plume of plastic is heading east from Hyperallergic's offices and into London in a matter of months.
A screenshot of Adrift in action. The plume of plastic is heading east from Hyperallergic’s offices and into London in a matter of months.

OAKLAND, Calif. — There’s the old thought experiment in the days before social media and mobile phones: if you could send a message in a bottle, where would it end up? The whole world is connected by oceans and waves, and the idea of a single glass bottle reaching all the way to the other side of the world. There was a recent story floating around of a man in Paterson, New Jersey, who got a glass bottle back that he had thrown in the ocean some 50 years prior.

Adrift, a new web site developed by Dr. Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer, and David Fuchs, a software engineer, takes actual data pulled from buoys installed all around the world’s oceans and visualizes what happens when that message in a bottle is multiplied on a global scale. If we stepped outside the Hyperallergic offices in Brooklyn and brought some plastics to the ocean, it could reach London in just a few months.

The interactive nature of this site brings an extra educational aspect to it. NASA’s Perpetual Ocean project is a stunning visualization, but it remains beautiful and distant; it’s hard for non-oceangoers to truly understand the implications of the various currents and flows. The same could be said of other weather visualizations we’ve looked at, like Point Cloud and Wind Map.

There are some quirks to the site. If you click in the Mediterranean Sea your plastic stays within its confines. That’s largely due to the lack of a buoy to measure the flows outward. On the other hand, some parts of the world are scarily detailed:

The drifting buoys used as input for this website track the currents in the upper ocean. This site can therefore be used to study the pathways of the debris from the Fukushima tsunami itself. The plume of radioactive material, however, will not only stay at the surface. As we showed in a scientific study … , much of the material will actually move to greater depths. Nevertheless, the fastest pathways of radioactive material will be near the surface, where current speeds are greatest, and so the animation of the Fukushima fallout shows the route of that part of the radioactive material that reaches the US coast first.

What visualization projects like Adrift do is create a way to understand complex systems. We celebrate big data visualizations, but a site like this puts that experience in our hands. We can click on the places we known and have visited, and we can see what the consequences of that click could be.

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